Is Rape Culture Getting Worse?

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It is problematic enough to have a society that continuously blames women for their own rape, but now we have judges who work to embed this rape culture into law, says Preston Mitchum.

“If only you didn’t get drunk…If only you didn’t wear that short skirt…If only you didn’t dance so provocatively.” If you are familiar with these expressions, chances are, you understand—at a minimum—the power of living in a society that promotes rape culture.

But if you think rape culture and victim-blaming has reached an all-time high, think again. As Dahlia Lithwick eloquently stated in a recent Slate article, “when it’s the easy cases that start to make bad law, it’s really time to worry.” If we have learned anything from a recent Montana decision that epitomized rape culture and victim blaming, it’s that we should be worried.

On August 26, former teacher Stacey Dean Rambold was sentenced to a mere 30 days in prison for having sex with a 14-year-old student when he was 49. In 2008, Rambold entered into a relationship with Cherice Morales, who committed suicide just as her teacher was being charged with felony statutory rape. After Morales’ suicide, Rambold entered a plea agreement which would have been dismissed pending a completion of the sex-offender treatment program and agreement to have no unsupervised contact with minors. But after Rambold violated the plea agreement and was removed from the treatment program, the prosecutors re-filed the statutory rape charges. In Montana, statutory rape is defined as “sexual intercourse with someone under age 16.”

But chronological age was irrelevant to District Judge G. Todd Baugh. When delivering Rambold’s sentence of 30 days, Judge Baugh commented that the victim acted “older than her chronological age” and was “as much in control” of the situation as her rapist. As Roxane Gay writes, “people often want to ‘complicate’ the statutory rape conversation by talking about the sexual empowerment of adolescents and this and that. These exercises in intellectual masturbation are pointless.”

The problem is not only that Judge Baugh blamed Morales for being raped, but also that he engaged in some of the most invidious forms of victim-blaming because it targets children. Under statutory rape law, children are their chronological age regardless of perceived mental capability. Only the power of male privilege would take into consideration whether an adolescent girl had the mental fortitude to seduce an older man, instead of understanding that authority and ownership played a role in this sexual encounter. It is problematic enough to have a society that continuously blames adult women for their own rape, but now we have judges who work to embed this rape culture into law. We have a serious problem.

Judge Baugh seemed to forget one small thing when sentencing Rambold: the law. Judge Baugh called a new hearing because he realized his sentence was below the two-year mandatory minimum sentencing required by law. “In the Court’s opinion, imposing a sentence which suspends more than the mandatory minimum would be an illegal sentence,” he wrote.

The promotion of rape culture, unfortunately, is not a novel concept. This is the same rape culture that normalizes sexual violence, lack of consent, advocates for unwanted touching, and even excuses or tolerates rape. This is the same culture that sympathizes with perpetrators of crimes like in the Steubenville rape case, instead of the victim who had pictures taken while her helpless body laid still. In March, CNN rightfully faced hostile reactions for its disconcerting empathy for the two convicted rapists—“two young men that had such promising futures, star football players, very good students,” who “literally watched as they believed their lives fell apart.”

But in addition to the accolades CNN mentioned, it forgot one crucial fact: They were rapists, and their age did not absolve that. Expressing sympathy with rapists as opposed to showing an ounce of compassion for the victim is the epitome of promoting rape culture.

In June, this is the same rape culture that I witnessed riding home one night in Washington, D.C., when I observed a man repeatedly touch a woman only to use “lack of sexual attraction” as a substitution for consent. In my “Open Letter To My Fellow Gay Men: We Need A Woman’s Consent Too,” I asked for gay men to examine our male privilege when determining our alleged right to invade a woman’s personal space.

This is the same rape culture that somehow told the Washington Post to publish Richard Cohen’s troubling piece that compared the Steubenville rape case to Miley Cyrus’s MTV Video Music Award performance. Certainly I am disappointed in Miley’s continued commodification of blackness, specifically of black women, and unrelenting cultural appropriation, but Cohen’s effort to illustrate his disdain for Miley’s performance sympathized with rapists. The confusing attempt to connect Miley’s performance to teen culture run amok only exacerbates victim blaming.

If a woman is subjected to a rape culture, society should not ask: What was she wearing? Was she asking for it? Did she do anything to indicate it was consensual, despite consent never being implied? These questions place blame on victims without realizing that we are sympathizing with their rapist.

The bottom line is this: Why would any man believe to be entitled to touch a woman without expressed consent (both legal and social)? Even scarier, we must ask, why would a judge affirm this entitlement?

I do not pretend to fully understand rape culture, but I do know that Judge Baugh actively played a role in its continuance. To begin to bring an end to rape culture, we must:

  • Tell people, especially men, to stop raping.
  • Stand up against rape culture and stop dismissing the reality of sexual assault.
  • Have an honest conversation about the intersection of patriarchy, male privilege, sexism, racism, and how this plays into the promotion of rape culture.
  • Find ways for young boys and men to express themselves in a healthy manner.
  • Stop analyzing clothing, appearance, hairstyles, and dancing as a way to attack women and point fingers as victims.
  • Not write articles like this, this, this, or even this, which dismiss the problems of assault, trivializes rape culture, and justify inexcusable actions.

Make no mistake, rape culture is a serious problem that affects everyone. The more we reject the importance of autonomy and consent, and believe that men are entitled to anything on a woman or girl’s body, the more we promote rape culture—a culture that Judge Baugh promoted behind a bench.

Shaming and blaming teenage girls and women for the lack of control of young boys and men needs to stop. Sexual objectification and promoting a rape culture is not acceptable, no matter the photos you post, no matter what you wear, and most certainly no matter what Mrs. Hall says.

Preston Mitchum is a Policy Analyst with the FIRE Initiative at the Center for American Progress, which works to eliminate the social, economic, and health disparities faced by LGBT people of color. Preston’s research interests include the intersection of race, sexual orientation, poverty, and gender. His work can be found here and on the Huffington Post. Follow him on Twitter @PrestonMitchum

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